By Jessica Brodie
ROCK HILL—Bethel United Methodist is a small church with a big heart, and it’s doing some bold things for its community in the name of Jesus.
With an average of 50 members in worship each Sunday, it still manages to host a thriving soup kitchen for the entire community each Thursday throughout the winter, plus for the past 10 years, it has offered a warm place to stay for homeless men.
“It allows us to live out the Gospel, specifically Matthew 25 and I would even say Deuteronomy 15:11, and as we live out those passages, I as a pastor find myself fulfilling my call to serve all God’s children and make space for all people,” said the Rev. Emily Sutton, Bethel’s pastor for the past six years, noting the soup kitchen and warming center are a vital ministry of the congregation.
The soup kitchen started roughly 30 years ago and has morphed into what Sutton calls a “rather unique” ministry that serves most every segment in the Rock Hill community. Initially launched to serve the church’s sick and homebound members, Bethel began hosting it onsite after great request. Not only does it feed people in need, but local teachers and county employees frequent the soup kitchen weekly, as does the former mayor, retirees, and others seeking fellowship during what can be the lonely winter months.
The warming center began 10 years ago to provide a warm meal and a place to stay for adult men who had no place to go during the winter. In the beginning it served just a few men, but it has grown steadily. Last year, it hit 25-30 men each night, and this year sheltered 31 the first night and saw a high of 56 men one night, largely because of the booming population and lack of affordable housing.
“This is just what the church does,” Sutton said, calling their actions “Kingdom work.”
Soup kitchen social hour
Nobody knows exactly when the soup kitchen started, says Pat Gillian, who grew up in the church and now helps coordinate the weekly effort.
“Everybody knew everybody back then, and they would just deliver to people,” said Gillian, who along with Ruth Culp and Darnelle Sweatt is responsible for managing the cooking, serving and coordination of roughly nine giant pots of soup each week, along with sandwiches, desserts, drinks and other sides.
Culp was the main coordinator for most of that time, and Gillian and Sweatt came alongside her to help a few years ago. Culp took the reins from Sue Brown, who started it back when Culp was still teaching school. Culp retired in 1992 and has been volunteering with the soup kitchen ever since.
In the beginning, Culp said holding out her hands in a wide arc, “We had a list of shut-ins this long.” A lot of the shut-ins would make two meals of it—have their soup at lunch and save the rest for dinner.
But after awhile, people began to request that Bethel start serving soup onsite. Now, most of the soup kitchen customers come to the church for their meal, though a handful of volunteers deliver to the homebound or to teachers who can’t slip away from class long enough to get the meal for themselves.
Culp makes her homemade pimento cheese every week, and the soup pots go on at 6 a.m. each Thursday: five pots of vegetable beef soup—one 10-gallon pot and the others 6-gallon—and four pots of other soup, like potato—two 7-gallon pots and two 5-gallon.
The soup is offered donation-only, the money raised supports local missions, from Salkehatchie Summer Service camps to helping people with electricity bills. They serve from 400 to 600 bowls of soup each week.
Sweatt said it’s like a social hour.
“I just love seeing the community together and enjoying the social time of it. Some are retired, some are in the working force, some people are on the poverty level, but it’s all fellowship,” Sweatt said. “One man told me, ‘Darnelle, I hope you never quit doing this. It’s so good for the community.’”
Sutton thinks the soup kitchen is a terrific opportunity for the community to come together. Every United Methodist church in the York-Rock Hill area is represented, plus local workers and members of other area churches, and even people from the nightly Men’s Warming Center.
“I don’t think this happens much anymore,” Sutton said. “It’s just about coming together as a community, and I don’t know of any other space where we can do that other than our church. It’s just beautiful.”
A warm place to stay
Another beautiful example of ministry at Bethel, Sutton said, is the warming center. This year, its 10th season, the center is seeing a lot more people than normal—a sad reality, but one that makes Sutton especially glad her church is there to help.
“York County is the fastest-growing county in the nation, and it’s right outside of Charlotte, which is booming,” Sutton said. “As our community grows, we shouldn’t expect just the pop of those who are affluent should grow but the entire community, even those impoverished. We have seen as our community grows the number of homeless and number people in need continue to grow.”
Affordable housing is a big issue, and government housing has a 12-year wait list.
Bethel provides a warm, safe place for men to sleep who have nowhere else to go.
Richard Murr, the warming center committee chair, has been involved with the ministry since his very first night as a volunteer in November 2016. He was searching for a church home, and he was invited to provide a meal at the center one night with some other men.
“When I left that night, I was a changed person. You see needs, and you think it’s all taken care of, but it’s not. And there are real needs,” Murr said.
Some of the men are chronically homeless. Others are having marital problems and just need a place to stay short-term. Others are passing through the area, looking for work, and have trouble finding housing.
“These men, they’re looking for a friend, someone to pray with, talk with,” Murr said.
“I felt called to be more involved.”
This is his second year coordinating the center. Bethel has space to accommodate 25 men, who sleep on beds in the church classrooms beneath the sanctuary. They have two overflow sites—other churches who can take in additional men in need—plus hundreds of volunteers who pitch in to help with meals, clothing and monetary donations. This year, the warming center started offering Kingdom Partners, who are volunteers willing to come a few times a week to befriend and witness to the men if needed.
Doors open at 5:50 p.m., and the meal is served by a group of volunteers. Showers are next, and then at 7:30 p.m., the men go over to the main building to sleep. A bonded, certified security officer stays overnight with the men, and they all leave by 8 the next morning.
They used to be open Nov. 15 to March 15, but this year, Murr said they will be open until April 1.
Sutton said there is not a year-round shelter in York County, so their help is sorely needed. She is grateful her flock is able to help.
“I think this is the ministry Jesus calls us to, and it’s the kingdom work I see myself called to do,” Sutton said.
“It’s a beautiful appointment and it’s a fulfilling of my calling.”